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Sustainable shopping: Can green buildings improve productivity?

Marks and Spencer Cheshire Oaks 4

UK Green Building Council’s campaign to find a link between sustainable buildings and their occupants’ health, wellbeing and productivity has moved on from offices to retail – with interesting implications for the future of retail construction.

The push to make buildings ‘green’ and build sustainably has mostly been driven by a desire to use less energy, and thus save money.

But what if you could prove that designing a sustainable building has a positive effect on its occupants and users?

The theory goes that if you can reliably quantify the human benefits of green building, you can prove beyond doubt the return on investment for sustainable design and construction. Even reasonably modest improvements in health and productivity could have huge positive financial implications for employers.

This is what the UK Green Building Council and a number of partners have been trying to do over the last few years.

The organisation published a report in 2014 on the effect that building design can have on office occupants – and now it has followed up that research by looking at retail and whether design increases productivity among staff and shoppers.

In trying to prove that greener buildings can positively affect the health and wellbeing of users, which in turn influences their productivity in a commercial or work setting, the organisation hopes to make the business case for building green even more compelling.

Why retail?

The office report was well received when it was published in September 2014 – and while it did not definitely settle the argument, it did provide a framework for building owners and occupiers to begin tracking the impact of their buildings on employees’ health, wellbeing and productivity.

The evidence presented demonstrated a correlation between higher-quality, more sustainable buildings and more productive and healthy employees.

And it was not long after publication that retailers and retail landlords saw an opportunity for the research to benefit them as well.

“I think firstly, people have a choice about where they shop, which is unusual compared to offices. We knew we needed to attract people to our stores,” says Zoe Young, property project manager of Marks & Spencer’s Plan A sustainability initiative.

“People have a choice about where they shop, which is unusual compared to offices. We knew we needed to attract people to our stores”

Zoe Young, Marks & Spencer

M&S has been switched on to the possibilities inherent in sustainable buildings for some time already, with its sustainable learning stores designed to provide feedback on the business case for building green.

Ms Young says that the firm “saw hints” of improvements in productivity from some of the post-occupancy evaluations on those stores.

“We had a lot of anecdotal evidence – the POE at Cheshire Oaks had a 22 per cent increase in satisfaction for the employees,” she says. “We had great results regarding the environmental features, with people reacting positively to the obvious things like the green walls, but also the temperature and light levels in the store.”

For landlords like British Land, the study proved useful in helping to make the case for investment in sustainable buildings, and the positive effect it might have.

“The offices report was perfect timing for us,” says British Land head of wellbeing and future proofing Matthew Webster.

“We’d just launched our new sustainability strategy, and the message from the executive team was to define how sustainability can bring value back into the business. Property’s all about people and the people that occupy our buildings, so the focus on health and wellbeing, and particularly the productivity bit, was really important to us.”

Practical application

In a similar result to the offices report, the work on retail has shown a positive relationship between the environmental performance of buildings and customers’ experience.

Richard Francis, principal of sustainability consultant The Monomoy Company and chair of the Retail Task Group on World Green Building Council’s Better Places for People campaign, says questions around sustainable buildings had moved on from why to how.

“The question was how should we do this? So we geared the report around providing those tools,” he says.

The report has come up with a Retail Metrics Framework, designed to be used by businesses to analyse their own estates and work out how to improve them.

“It’s about identifying what data is useful to your business, and what’s useful for telling the story to key people within your organisation that you need to get buy-in from”

Zoe Young, Marks & Spencer

Retailers begin by examining the economic statistics that they probably already collect: sales, footfall and dwell time for customers, as well as absenteeism, staff retention and medical complaints for employees.

They then use this data in conjunction with employee and customer surveys about their perceptions of stores to form a picture of which offer the best experiences.

The final step is then to compare this with environmental metrics like lighting levels, indoor air quality, thermal comfort, acoustics, biophilia and others.

This then allows the retailers to work back the other way, identifying which physical characteristics affect the customer and employee experience, and thus the all-important economic statistics that can improve the bottom line.

Data overload

One of the biggest challenges comes around the data. Many organisations will not have all of the data metrics recommended by the framework, which lists 10 environmental and 10 economic metrics to measure.

“We tried to get people to recognise that you don’t have to have all of the data. By and large, we’re trying to get people, whether they’re asset managers or design teams, to speak this language with the information you do have,” Mr Francis says.

Ms Young at M&S echoes this, arguing that companies shouldn’t feel like they have to measure everything.

Marks and spencer cheshire oaks 5

Marks and spencer cheshire oaks 5

M&S store, Cheshire Oaks

“There’s a challenge when you have too much data – it’s about identifying what data is useful to your business, and what’s useful for telling the story to key people within your organisation that you need to get buy-in from to move this agenda forward,” she says.

She also recommends engaging stakeholders from across the business – from human resources, facilities management, engineering, store design – to discuss the metrics and work out what data you do or do not have (see box).

This is where contractors will become important. As the case for green buildings continues to stack up, retailers and landlords will increasingly demand sustainable construction and may want to improve how they measure their buildings once completed.

Construction companies, particularly those employed under design and build contracts, will be crucial here.

Future proof

So what’s next? UK-GBC is keen for this report to be a jumping-off point, with the framework now in place to help firms better understand their estates and take action on both new and existing stores.

“There’s a real buzz around the word ‘wellbeing’ at the moment,” British Land’s Mr Webster says.

“[The challenge is] development, getting in there at an earlier stage and understanding how a building can be designed for this kind of thing. I think this is just going to get greater scrutiny.”

He also argues that much of this work will become almost automatic, as the dynamic between physical and online retail continues to shift.

“Wellbeing and how that environment makes you feel can differentiate between a successful shopping centre and one that isn’t”

Matt Webster, British Land

“With increased consumer awareness, and the move from just providing a space that sells products to providing an experience [where] you go shopping rather than do the shopping – a lot of our job will be done for us,” he says. “Wellbeing and how that environment makes you feel can differentiate between a successful shopping centre and one that isn’t.”

It’s also clear that it’s still early days in trying to prove this relationship truly exists – it may never be possible to do this definitively, but the battle will be won by providing more data to back up the assertion that green buildings positively affect occupants’ health, wellbeing and productivity.

“I think that it’s about more evidence, more data, more case studies,” Ms Young says.

“There’s a great opportunity to build on what we’ve got. Get on board, trial these metrics and tell us what you find.”

And as retailers and retail landlords increasingly see the sense in building green, they will certainly be looking for construction partners who can deliver it for them.

A lesson in sustainability

Marks & Spencer chose to retrospectively apply the Retail Metrics Framework to its Ecclesall Road store in Sheffield, one of its sustainable learning stores.

The retailer used existing data from its post-occupancy evaluation and from sources identified in an internal workshop, which involved key stakeholders from withint he company to provide support, feedback and input into the framework metrics. It found:

  • Lighting – 87 per cent of customers stated that light levels were satisfactory throughout the store;
  • Thermal comfort – 84 per cent of customers stated that temperature was satisfactory throughout the store;
  • Biophilia – staff memebrs reported liking the ability to sit by the window in the staff common room and look out at the greenery and their surroundings.

As the Ecclesall Road store was designed with sustainability in mind in all aspects, this shows a positive correlation between the environment created and customer and staff experience.

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